FOOD TRENDS

ROBOTS HIT THE STREETS AS DEMAND FOR FOOD DELIVERY GROWS

Robot food delivery is no longer the stuff of science fiction. But you may not see it in your neighborhood anytime soon. Hundreds of little robots — knee-high and able to hold around four large pizzas — are now navigating college campuses and even some city sidewalks in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. While robots were being tested in limited numbers before the coronavirus hit, the companies building them say pandemic-related labor shortages and a growing preference for contactless delivery have accelerated their deployment. “We saw demand for robot usage just go through the ceiling,” said Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its 2 millionth delivery. “I think demand was always there, but it was brought forward by the pandemic effect.” Starship has more than 1,000 robots in its fleet, up from just 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed soon. They’re delivering food on 20 U.S. campuses; 25 more will be added soon. They’re also operating on sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown of Tallin, Estonia. Robot designs vary; But generally, they use cameras, sensors, GPS and sometimes laser scanners to navigate sidewalks and even cross streets autonomously. They move around 5 mph. When a robot arrives at its destination, customer types a code in to their phones to open the lid and retrieve their food. The robots have drawbacks that limit their usefulness for now. They’re electric and slow, stay within a small, pre-mapped radius and inflexible i.e., A customer can’t tell a robot to leave the food outside the door. And some big cities with crowded sidewalks, like New York, Beijing and San Francisco, aren’t welcoming them. Delivery companies are also jumping into the market. Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot maker Yandex to deploy 50 robots on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. U.S. delivery orders jumped 66% in the year ending in June, according to NPD, a data and consulting firm. And delivery demand could remain elevated even after the pandemic eases because customers have gotten used to the convenience. Kim said the robots also excite customers, who often post videos of their interactions. In a recent survey, 75% of U.S. restaurant owners told the National Restaurant Association that recruiting and retaining employees is their biggest challenge. That has many restaurants looking to fill the void with robot delivery. Domino’s is partnering with Nuro, a California startup whose 6-foot-tall self-driving pods go at a maximum speed of 25 mph on streets, not sidewalks. Nuro is testing grocery and food delivery in Houston, Phoenix and Mountain View, California.